The End Of The "Female-Friendly" Workplace

To attract and retain female workers, start thinking in terms of policies and incentives for all your employees—not just the women. An overview of some low-cost, high-ROI policies that work.

Look around your office: Is it a total dudefest? For many tech companies and startups, the answer is yes—and it’s truer the higher you climb on the executive ladder. But that’s not acceptable if you want your company to thrive.

Multiple studies confirm: companies with more women in higher places meet with greater financial success. McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index (OHI), a broad-based measurement of top-performing companies, finds firms with three or more women in top positions score higher than their peers—findings supported by studies by Columbia Business School and University of Maryland, among others. Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on expanding opportunities for women in business, found a 26% boost in return on invested capital in companies with lots of women on their boards versus companies with no women.

And then there’s the "end of men." A new spate of books published this fall trumpet the new economic ascendency of women. Their arguments in brief? Male-dominated industries like manufacturing and construction have dwindled in a blizzard of pink slips, while the economy’s fastest-growing jobs—nursing, home healthcare, and service roles—and the skills necessary to succeed in the recession’s disruptive wake—collaboration, communication, flexibility—all favor women. Skeptics point out that, while women have come a long way, there’s still a long road ahead. Even so, data strongly suggest getting and keeping top female talent could be the new corporate edge.

What’s the latest smart thinking in employer policy to attract and retain female workers? We scanned the corporate landscape for low-cost, high-ROI policies that work.

Stop thinking exclusively in terms of "mommy-policies."

Increasingly, what women demand from their employers aligns with what men want, too: better work-life balance. As Hanna Rosin relates in her book The End of Men, Harvard Business Review surveys of Gen Y workers reveal both genders "want flexibility, the option to work remotely, to dip in and out of full-time, and find their work meaningful." Women have just been historically more willing than men to ditch any workplace that doesn’t meet these demands, and suffer the career fallout that may result.

"The wage gap can’t be explained just in terms of discrimination," Rosin explained in a phone interview from her home in Washington, D.C. "Women are making rational decisions to guard their personal time." Given a choice between two equivalent positions—one amply paid but featuring zero flexibility, and one less well remunerated but more flexible—more women are consciously opting for the latter. In other words, contrary to many companies’ expectations, more flexible corporate policies can actually save you big bucks in hiring costs.

Evaluate employee incentives and penalties—and be honest.

As the enduring popularity of Freakonomics suggests, employees’ choices reflect incentives and penalties. "The critical question is not whether or not [policies] actually work, but if the corporate culture accepts them," says Rosin. "Do [employees] pay a penalty for taking advantage of them?"

"I’ve moved away from the idea of better maternity leave to supporting more generous childcare" in the workplace, Rosin continues. "Just focusing on maternity leave targets women too much…and promotes the idea that women are exclusively responsible for childcare." In her controversial article for The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can’t Have it All," Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter explains how her employer removed the mommy-stigma in their parental leave policy for junior professors. In a policy dating to the 1970s, pre-tenure female professors were offered a voluntary extra year on their tenure clocks with the birth of a child; only 3% took advantage of the perk. When in 2005 Princeton extended the tenure-clock for all junior professors with new children automatically, the policy rapidly lost its stigma and became normalized. The moral: employers should think less in terms of mom-specific perks that other employees might resent as special treatment, and instead roll out policies that recognize all employees’ need to balance work-life demands.

Other penalties are unspoken, embedded in corporate culture, and correspondingly more difficult to dislodge. In her book, Rosin cites women’s hesitancy to negotiate higher pay, and how even a slightly lower starting salary can compound significantly over a career. The lesson for CEOs: lead by example. Senior execs who actively use policies like flex-time or telecommuting and encourage their direct reports to do the same signal to rank-and-file employees that there’s nothing to fear by following suit.

Flex-time costs employers nothing—and it’s surprisingly effective.

Which policies top the list to retain talent? Flexible hours, telecommuting, and job-sharing are all low-cost, high-ROI options. In 2006 Best Buy rolled out Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), a then-radical flex-time policy allowing all their employees to choose where, how and when they worked, provided their performance results justify their means of achieving them. Checking the program’s results in 2011, two University of Minnesota researchers found ROWE reduced employee turnover at the corporate headquarters by 45%, while boosting productivity.

Elisa All is also a flex-time fan. A serial media entrepreneur and mother of three based in Chicago, All is the founder of 30Second Mobile, whose flagship product 30SecondMom delivers mobile content to time-strapped mothers. She sold her previous venture iParenting Media to Disney in 2007. "While it's fine to generally have an office policy of 9-5, most women want to know that if they have to be late or leave early to take care of kids, aging parents, et cetera, that you're OK with it," she explained in an email. "Not only will they make up the time, they usually will work harder because they're grateful for your understanding."

All encourages employees and her virtual network of content contributors to use any and all technologies to bring them closer together. "Whether just once in a while or permanently, telecommuting allows women to work from anywhere at any time (such as after kids are asleep)," All continued. "I have had many virtual employees over the years who have gone above and beyond for me. You'd never know they didn't work alongside me in the office—they were always ‘there’. Being flexible goes a long way toward gaining their loyalty."

Another low-cost benefit that bolsters flexible work hours is flexible childcare. How can corporate childcare ever qualify as cheap? Chicago-based Sittercity offers SelectPlus, a program in which employers pay Sittercity’s annual subscription cost of $70/year. Employees can then access Sittercity to find qualified, pre-screened childcare, senior care, pet-sitting or housekeeping help (which they pay for themselves) to meet their changing needs.

"Flexibility in your work schedule causes the need for more flexible childcare," says Melissa Anderson, senior vice president of Sittercity. Started in 2008, the program now includes 500 employers, including MasterCard, AOL, Sanofi US and the University of California. "We see use cases for employees who are traveling, working late, up against a deadline," Anderson continues—not to mention coverage during snow days, a child’s sickness, or other everyday calamities. Sittercity measures reductions in employee absenteeism for each employer in real-time and claims, on average, employees work an additional 10 hours a month thanks to Sittercity access.

Job-sharing is more doable than employers may realize.

Rosin’s book details the recent uptick in women pharmacists, veterinarians, and pediatricians—all high-paying fields where job-sharing and predictable work schedules have become the norm. "Women don’t just become pediatricians because they love children. They love that you can schedule [medical] procedures, so you know when you do and don’t need to be there," says Rosin. Similarly, pharmacists working for large chains like Walgreens renders them "more interchangeable with each other, so it’s very possible to do job-sharing successfully." Studies by Goldin and Katz among others reveal a virtuous-circle dynamic between employees seeking these flexibilities and employers changing in response, attracting more women as a result.

Ask your top employees what they need to succeed.

What your employees really want can be surprisingly tough to uncover. Rosin’s book tells an instructive story from Marissa Mayer, then Google’s highest-ranking female developer, now the CEO of Yahoo! Noticing one of her top reports, Katy, seemed on the verge of burnout, Mayer called Katy into her office and asked her to think hard about what little changes would make her demanding job less stressful. Mayer guessed Katy would push back on 1 a.m. conference calls, but in fact Katy’s request was even simpler: she hated how company meetings ran long and make her late for her kids’ events. "Mayer had it wrong as to why this woman was discontented," Rosin said. "She didn’t have kids at the time and just figured it was generic tiredness. But it turns out Katy’s problem wasn’t that hard to solve."

The fear of penalties—whether overt and implied—tend to shut employees up about what policies truly cramp their style. So don’t expect your employees will volunteer this stuff freely. Instead bosses may need to dig—and, once they’ve uncovered simple requests like Katy’s, they should consider extending that privilege to all employees, contingent on job performance.

Rosin believes openness will take us a long way towards achieving work-life balance, for women and men. "That’s the weird thing about America: we act surprised by the fact that you have to take kids to the doctor. Really?" says Rosin. Her advice to senior female execs: "Become an advocate for honesty: never lie to your employer if you’re taking your kid to the doctor. That helps normalize it."

What policies has your company put in place to attract and retain not just women—but the best talent in general? Tell us about it in the comments.

[Image: Playful Fight via Shutterstock]

Add New Comment


  • Tema Frank

    Page 1 of my 1994 book, "Canada's Best Employers for Women": "If you are a man looking for the best places to work,... this book is for you too, because employers that are good for women are good for men too."  

    Sad that we are even still having this conversation! 

  • Jason Gomez

    Companies need to learn how to reach their audience. Of course, if they need to retain employees who have a family (male or female), offer them flexibility. But as Karen mentions, what about the the rest?

    General policies are great to keep a large team motivated, but if you need to retain a specific group of people (executives, directors) then it's probably better to get to know them and offer them what they like. Make them feel unique (with specific benefits, offers, aids). 

  • Jude Stewart

    Thanks for all the great feedback. It's nice to hear that many of you agree that ALL of us, women or men, childless or not, would value our employers' help in balancing career goals with maintaining our personal lives. As a married woman without kids (yet) who's worked remotely since 2005, I agree with Janet Tate Crum when she writes: "It doesn't matter It doesn't matter why someone wants to telecommute or a flexible work schedule.  If s/he can do the job effectively from elsewhere or outside of standard business hours, that's all that matters." For me, I've made these career choices because self-employment allows me to balance creatively satisfying work versus more well-paying assignments. I'm also married to an academic, a career that virtually requires you to move wherever the jobs are. Rather than stay tethered to one location, working remotely allows me to work from anywhere - for me, that's been Berlin, New Haven, CT, and now Chicago.

    In this article I focused on how women are at the vanguard of demanding work-life balance, how that demand has cost them in career advancement (in the aggregate), and how and why that should change for everyone. Why have women taken this vanguard position for work-life balance? Impossible to generalize, but the most inescapable reason may be this: we're the ones who bear the children, and childrearing is probably the biggest, most long-term disruption to work-life balance any worker faces. Yet Corporate America has been incredibly slow to accommodate this fact. So that explains why I discuss working mothers: they're the canaries in the coal mine for the rest of us.

    Facebook's Sheryl Steinberg has been much-quoted in advocating that her female employees not "leave before they leave" - that is to say, many women are thinking years in advance about work-life balance, especially about how to insert childrearing into their careers successfully. Steinberg asserts that this advance planning may cause women to hold back, forgoing challenging assignments or promotions that may disrupt their plans to have a family someday. So even women who end up childless can be impacted by this thinking and its effects.

    My point is this: We need to think smarter collectively about work-life balance and why women pull out of the corporate race earlier than men. It's a vital concern for our families, our marriages, and our economy.

  • Katgordon

    Applause for this piece. Less than 2 weeks ago I hosted a first-time conference in SF called The 3% Conference. Its mission? To showcase the business imperative of having more than 3% of advertising creative directors be women (the current reality). One of the most mystifying things about the ad industry is that not only does its reward of those with all-nighter bragging rights make it a family-unfriendly business trying to motivate a female-centric marketplace, but studies demonstrate that true creativity is rarely realized behind a desk. Thanks for shedding the spotlight on how forward-thinking companies are retaining talent -- male and female -- by considering what motivates workers and how best to deliver it.

  • Anna Liisa Covell

    I'm baffled by your sub head that says "to attract and retain female workers, start thinking about policies and incentives for all employees - not just women."  The basis of most of your story content is about child-rearing mothers.  It doesn't focus on women whose children are now grown;  it doesn't focus on women who chose not to have children.  It makes several off-handed comments about the male workforce dwindling in construction and then you go one to say how women's jobs are thriving by listing service, nursing and healthcare roles that have always been traditionally women's jobs.  It seems your story header wanted the content to show a balance of equality for women and men in the workforce, but it got lost in child-rearing women.  Believe me, I mean no disrespect, but roles for women include more than traditional job titles like mommy or nurse, would you take my temperature, please.  I speak from experience as the head of an electrical contracting company, as a mother and a grandmother, to say I believe your story was somewhat sexist in its thinking.  

  • Janet Tate Crum

    Karen is right - it isn't just about parents and children.  If you want intelligent, creative, engaged, well-rounded employees, then give them the ability to balance work with the rest of their lives.  It doesn't matter why someone wants to telecommute or a flexible work schedule.  If s/he can do the job effectively from elsewhere or outside of standard business hours, that's all that matters.  

  • jox

    "companies with more women in higher places meet with greater financial success". Come on, be courageous! Continue the "end of men" path to its conclusion: Companies will be absolutely profitable at the same time that enjoyable when 100% of the staff will be women.

  • Karen Loomis

    It still seems policies and this article focus on employees with children/families/etc.Thhere are plenty of employees, young/old, male/female who want/need some of what's offered by flexible employers. And many don't want the "well, they don't even have kids, do why is that important to them" type thinking. People work best when they work in the environment or atmosphere "tuned" in to them as individuals.

  • Noel Hollis

    Thank you thank you thank you. 

    People don't realize that as a single person with no kids it's even harder to get any of this. Especially without a guilt trip. 
    I don't understand why I'm supposed to work 15 hour days, I have a life too, and just because I haven't chosen to have kids yet doesn't mean I don't deserve to have free time. 

  • fanadapanda

    What a nice article.  I especially like the emphasis on human-friendly policies, regardless of gender.  I knew that the 100 Best Workplaces or companies that Put People First (in Jeffrey Pfeffer's terms) performed better financially, but not the results about percentage of women.  Interesting.